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October 14, 2015 | 1st Cheshvan 5776

Adolescent Education No. 3, 5769

Al sh'loshah d'varim haolam omed:
Al haTorah, v'al ha-avodah, v'al g'milut chasadim.

The world depends on three things:
on Torah, on worship and on loving deeds.
- Pirkei Avot 1:2

This year each issue of V’shinantam will focus on adolescents and applications for our Jewish educational and youth settings. In this third issue, we look at teens and technology and begin to answer the questions of how does teen use of technology impact their learning and our teaching and how can we embrace the technology available to enhance teaching and learning.

Today’s teens are “digital natives;” “They study, work, write, and interact with each other in ways that are very different from the ways you did growing up…They’re connected to one another by a common culture. Major aspects of their lives-social interactions, friendships, civic activities—are mediated by digital technologies. And they have never known another way of life.” (Palfrey and Gasser, 2) On the other hand, many teachers are “digital immigrants,” having adopted the Internet and related technologies, but who were born prior to the digital age and often playing catch-up to their digital native students. This issue of V’shinantam will focus on the affects that the digital age have on adolescent development and the challenges and opportunities it holds for Jewish education.

The widespread use of technology has an impact in almost every aspect of a teenager’s life. It affects their brain, social/emotional, identity and moral development as well as how they learn. According to Dr. David Walsh, author of Why Do They Act that Way?: A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen, technology is changing the way we live and communicate as electronic media becomes integrated into the daily lives of teens. Adolescents spend more time engaging with these media than in any other activity, including school. All this media access and use affects our teens. As teachers and trusted adults in the lives of teenagers, we need to be aware of the effects and the ways we can help teenagers Jewishly navigate their digital world.

Jewish education, like all education, needs to “adjust to the rapid flow of technological advances that will replace our traditional methodology in the classroom. With the aid of the world at their fingertips, adolescents will no longer tolerate a learning environment out of the last century.” (Philip, 4) In this section, we take a look at a few areas of adolescent development and how we might use technology in our learning environments.

Brain Development
The teen brain is under construction. The frontal lobes, the area responsible for abstract thinking, reason, language, and decision-making is developing significantly during adolescence. Therefore, unlike the adult brain, the teen brain relies heavily on the amygdala, the center of emotion. This explains why teens make poor decisions and highly have emotional responses to ordinary situations, questions, or requests. Experience also plays a significant role in brain development, shaping what parts of the brain will be pruned and what will become hardwired. Evaluating content is also difficult for teenagers because the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in selection, interpretation and evaluation, is not fully developed. Due to their shorter attention spans they often do not evaluate information thoroughly and have fewer experiences against which to compare the information. Neurology and technology together impact the teen brain in ways we are just discovering.

Technology tool: Journaling is a good habit for teens because it requires them to reflect on their experiences. Weblogs, or blogs, are easily created and updateable websites that allow the author to publish instantly to the Internet. Blogging engages in the processes of thinking, writing, and reflection. Ask students to create blogs about the lessons in the weekly Torah portion, ethical dilemmas in the news, or volunteer experiences. Teachers, parents and other students can post comments and engage students in the process of reflecting on their experiences.

Social Development
As with any new technology (telephone, tv, etc.) its introduction influences society and the way people interact with each other. The advent of so many new technologies developing so rapidly and available relatively inexpensively is having a profound impact on teenagers. “Teens have adopted this technology very aggressively…everything a teenager does is about being mobile and untethered…it’s a newer way of connecting socially.” (Philip, 75) Social connections for teens occur through the Internet, instant messaging, texting, and via cell phone. They can be anywhere at anytime and be connected to each other.

Technology tool: Because “learning is no longer primarily fixed in time and space; it can happen anytime and anywhere that we are connected…it forces us to rethink our physical teaching and learning spaces and our roles in student’s lives.” (Richardson, Educational Leadership, 28) New technologies can expand the contact hours we have with our students and how we get to know them. Social bookmarking sites allow one to save links, organize them through annotating them with tags, and sharing them with all those who have the same tag. Social bookmarking lets us read and connect what others read. You can use sites like to form Jewish special interest groups among students in different grades, schools or towns. Try joining a social networking site like Facebook to communicate with and get to know your students.

Identity Formation
Technology is also impacting identity formation in teens. There is more experimentation and reinvention of identity and different modes of expression. However, “studies of online identity formation consistently suggest that…young people tend to express their personal and social identities online much as people always have in real space and in ways that are consistent with their identities in real space” (Palfrey and Gasser, 21) Greater exploration offers terrific possibilities for personal development.

Technology tool: Allow students to create and share photo essays that represent their Jewish identities using online photo galleries like Photobucket or Flickr.

Moral Development
We often hear the difficulty students sometimes have in finding ways Judaism and Jewish values are relevant to the modern world. What more relevant conversation to have with teens than on how the ways we use technology can exhibit or conflict with Jewish values? There are rich discussions that can be had on making good choices about technology use such as: downloading materially legally; resisting violent or sexually inappropriate material online or in video games; limiting time online to have time for community, family, and self; the downside of multitasking and warning signs of addiction; and guarding against inappropriate ways of relating to others like sexting or cyber-bullying. Our ancient rabbis confronted the societal issues that are facing our teens today even though they could not have foreseen the digital age. Our role as teachers can be the pathfinders for our teens and their parents to help them Jewishly navigate the digital world.

Technology tool: A wiki is practically an online Talmud page—a collaborative webspace where anyone can add content or edit what has already been published. Wikis use skills of creation, collaboration, and contribution. Pose an ethical challenge from the real world and task students with finding relevant Jewish sources as well as posting their own commentary.

Multitasking and Down Time
Multitasking for a digital native is using more than one type of media at a time. It is not uncommon to find teens on a social networking site instant messaging friends, listening to downloaded music and doing homework. Multitasking takes different forms. “Parallel processing is when we do more than one thing at exactly the same time—reading while listening to music. Task-switching occurs when we rapidly change from one task to another—reading a book and responding to instant messages as they appear.” (Gasser and Palfrey, Educational Leadership, 17). It is task-switching that teens engage in most often. Research suggests that multitasking does not make learning impossible, but it does increase the amount of time needed to finish a task. In addition, “the loss of attention and the time spent switching tasks may have an adverse effect on digital natives’ ability to learn complex new facts and concepts.” (Gasser and Palfrey, Educational Leadership, 18)

Technology tool: Experiment with different environments in your classroom. Allow students to select and listen to relevant music while they study with a partner. Alternatively, declare some time or classroom space “quiet” or “unplugged” and teach students that there are appropriate times to focus and turn our digital devices off. Tie in to the idea of Shabbat and teach that we all need a break; practice quiet time and meditation.


Feinstein, Sheryl. Secrets of the Teenage Brain: Research-Based Strategies for Reaching and Teaching Today’s Adolescents. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press, 2004.

Howe, Neil and William Strauss. Millenials Rising: The Next Great Generation. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.

Palfrey, John and Urs Gasser. Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. New York: Basic Books, 2008.

Philip, Raleigh. Engaging Tweens and Teens: A Brain-Compatible Approach to Reaching Middle and High School Students. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press, 2007.

Richardson, Will. Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Tools Web Tools for Classrooms. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press, 2009.

Small, Gary and Gigi Vorgan. iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.

Walsh, David. Why Do They Act That Way? A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen. New York: Free Press, 2004.

Journals and Reports

Educational Leadership, Vol 66, No. 6: Learning 2.0. ASCD, March 2009.

Media Multitasking Among American Youth: Prevalence, Predictors and Pairings. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, December 2006

Torah at the Center, Vol.12 No. 2: Technology at the Center. Union for Reform Judaism, Spring 2009.

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